Edinburgh’s last cooper retires after 50 years

Andrew Walker, Scotland's longest-serving cooper, is retiring. Picture: Jane Barlow
Andrew Walker, Scotland's longest-serving cooper, is retiring. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE Capital’s only remaining barrel maker is retiring after 50 years – but he won’t be ­celebrating with a wee dram.

Andrew Walker is not a fan of drinking the traditional Scots tipple but has enjoyed working with the stuff since he left school at 15.

The cooper was introduced to the age-old tradition of making wooden whisky barrels by a neighbour who worked at Bells, then based on Leith Walk, who asked if he wanted to learn the trade.

Now, half a century on, Scotland’s longest serving cooper is hanging up his tools after helping repair and maintain more than 800,000 casks for the North British Distillery.

“At the time I didn’t know what a cooper was but I went to work, saw the barrels and watched the coopers working on them. I thought that would do for me and I’ve worked in the whisky industry ever since.

“I was only at Bells for two months before getting the job at North British Distillery. I went for an interview where the gaffer said ‘Do you want to be a cooper?’ I said yes – that’s how easy it was.”

Mr Walker said much has changed in the profession since his first day in 1963 but the underlying principles of coopering were centuries old.

When he started, there were 30 coopers with now only three in West Calder. Many of the duties now having been taken over by machinery.

Barrels couldn’t be moved from the warehouse without the permission of customs and excise officials who had much tighter controls over the process.

Most barrels then, as now, were imported from America and it would be Andrew’s job to fix any damaged en route.

He said: “They’d fill the barrels up with whisky and sometimes there’s a leak. We would take in the hoops and make the cask tighter to stop the whisky coming out.

“We used to repair the barrels as sometimes you get staves that are cracked. We would take that out and fit a new one in. Water and air would be put in to check they weren’t leaking or, if it was, we’d fix it.

“There was a time when I was paid by results so I used to tighten 120 a day. The faster you were, the more money you got so I was quite fast.”

Mr Walker has many memories but says a stand-out involves an escaped bull that ran amok in the warehouse. “He’d escaped from the slaughterhouse in Saughton and was charging around the distillery like a loony. It was trying to get in the coopery, that’s not something I’ll forget.”

Mr Walker’s legacy at the distillery is ensured as whisky in the barrels he has worked on will be left for anywhere between three and 50 years.

Martin Boyers, of the North British Distillery, said his work had been invaluable.

He said: “Andrew will be much missed by the North British Distillery and his colleagues but we wish him well in his well-earned retirement.”